Acupuncture now covered by Medicare for lower back pain

Medicare beneficiaries can receive acupuncture to treat lower back pain after CMS finalized coverage on Jan. 21. The treatment was previously non-covered by Medicare and was reviewed by CMS using evidence and examinations of policies of private payers.

“Expanding options for pain treatment is a key piece of the Trump Administrations’ strategy for defeating our country’s opioid crisis,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “Medicare beneficiaries will now have a new option at their disposal to help them deal with chronic low back pain, which is a common and sometimes debilitating condition.”  

Acupuncture stimulates specific points on the body, typically with thin needles. Studies, albeit consisting of a small number of adults, have shown that acupuncture can achieve improvements in function and pain for patients with chronic low back pain, as well as other diseases such as cancer. Already, many large private payers cover acupuncture treatment to some degree for certain indications.

The approval of the Medicare coverage for the treatment comes at a time when the government is under pressure to find alternatives to opioid painkillers as the nation continues to deal with an overdose and abuse problem. In 2018, 68,000 drug overdose deaths were recorded from opioids.

“We are dedicated to increasing access to alternatives to prescription opioids and believe that covering acupuncture for chronic low back pain is in the best interest of Medicare patients,” CMS Principal Deputy Administrator of Operations and Policy Kimberly Brandt said in a statement “We are building on important lessons learned from the private sector in this critical aspect of patient care. Over-reliance on opioids for people with chronic pain is one of the factors that led to the crisis, so it is vital that we offer a range of treatment options for our beneficiaries.”

CMS’ decision indicates the agency is increasingly looking to cover integrated care and make strides to reduce opioid dependence.